Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A SHAM Religion?

Scientific American online published an article on what journalist Steve Salerno calls the Self-Help and Actualization Movement, or SHAM for short. And a sham it is, indeed. The self-help movement is a marketer's dream and feeds on the average American's depressions, fears, and self-loathings. By promising instant success and gratification, these books, CDs, and videos suck wallets dry.

The article is definitely worth a read, but for reasons other than the sham that SHAM clearly is. To illustrate what I mean, I will quote a significant portion of the short article here, because the author (Michael Shermer) makes a very fascinating observation near the end (which I made bold for emphasis):

While Salerno was a self-help book editor for Rodale Press ... extensive market surveys revealed that "the most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months." The irony of "the eighteen-month rule" for this genre, Salerno says, is this: "If what we sold worked, one would expect lives to improve. One would not expect people to need further help from us--at least not in that same problem area, and certainly not time and time again."

Surrounding SHAM is a bulletproof shield: if your life does not get better, it is your fault--your thoughts were not positive enough. The solution? More of the same self-help--or at least the same message repackaged into new products. Consider the multiple permutations of John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus--Mars and Venus Together Forever, Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, The Mars and Venus Diet and Exercise Solution--not to mention the Mars and Venus board game, Broadway play and Club Med getaway.

SHAM takes advantage by cleverly marketing the dualism of victimization and empowerment. Like a religion that defines people as inherently sinful so that they require forgiveness (provided exclusively by that religion), SHAM gurus insist that we are all victims of our demonic "inner children" who are produced by traumatic pasts that create negative "tapes" that replay over and over in our minds. Redemption comes through empowering yourself with new "life scripts," supplied by the masters themselves, for prices that range from $500 one-day workshops to Robbins's $5,995 "Date with Destiny" seminar.

There is certainly a connection here, and it's one that most Protestant evangelicals would do well to remember. Four points are worth considering.

1. First, one's denomination (even religion?) is not the sole source of God's grace and mercy. God does not need our religious institutions to reveal Godself and act on behalf of the world. We are, as Barth puts it, simply the channels and the craters which God has put in place. But they by no means restrict the scope of God's activity. When it comes to the issue of inclusivity vs. exclusivity, we do well to make Newbigin's self-description one that applies to us all:

It has become customary to classify views on the relation of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist, exclusivist, or inclusivist … [My] position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ. (Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pp. 182-83)

As Jüngel writes in his article, "On the Doctrine of Justification":

His death is the foundation of his exclusivity. And this exclusiveness consists precisely in a universal inclusivity, in that in his death the sin of all sinners is condemned to pass away and brought to nothing. (IJST 1:1, p. 40)

2. Second, Christians need to remember that the Christian faith does not require people to be existentially made sinners before they can be "born again." This, unfortunately, is the norm in Protestant evangelism. But this is a great mistake. Christianity is not the solution to a problem; it is not the filling of some "god-shaped hole" that resides in all individuals. Such an account has nothing to do with the gospel of new creation which comes to us as a free event in Jesus Christ, an event that reorients the whole person not from (immoral) sin to (moral) salvation but from the old person to the new person: from the old person who has no true future to the eschatologically new person who lives from the future that becomes real in the present due to the power of the Holy Spirit. God is not the answer to a problem, but the basis for (new) life and (new) creation.

We would do very well to remember Bonhoeffer's profound rejection of modern religion's emphasis on God as the Great Solution, the deus ex machina ("god from machine"; a Greek deity who entered into a stage drama to change the course of events or solve a problem that the human characters created) who enters into the picture as a "god of the gaps" who solves what humans cannot solve on their own power:

I had been saying that God is being increasingly pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge and life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a realm beyond the world of experience. Theology has on the one hand resisted this development with apologetics, and has taken up arms—in vain—against Darwinism, etc. On the other hand, it has accommodated itself to the development by restricting God to the so-called ultimate questions as a deus ex machina; that means that he becomes the answer to life’s problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts. (Letters and Papers From Prison, p. 341)
Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail—in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure—always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the ‘solution’ of the problem of death. [. . .] God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. (Letters and Papers from Prison, pp. 281-82)

3. Third, evangelicals in America have for far too long capitalized on the very same fears and self-doubts on which SHAM feeds. American Protestantism has, for all intents and purposes, capitulated to the "desires" that drive the markets by becoming a SHAM religion. Churches have become businesses. Or, even worse, become self-help clinics -- except the name "God" is used to displace human responsibility. I would rather have people attend an actual SHAM clinic than enter a church and hear the same message except with the pseudo-promise that prayer will make God do what you cannot do on your own power. God becomes the divine projection of our human powers and desires. In other words, far too often, evangelical American Christianity realizes what Feuerbach believed to be true of Christianity in general. In that sense, Feuerbach was a true prophet. It will take a massive mobilization among critically thinking Christians to embody the actual Gospel -- the word of the cross -- rather than the pseudo-gospel of modern SHAM religion.

4. Fourth, American Christianity becomes a SHAM religion whenever it, too, sets up a "bulletproof shield." Time and again people have "crises of faith," because the solutions they were promised never come to pass. But pastors have a whole arsenal of bulletproof shields: "you are still too weighed down by your sin," "you have not prayed enough," "you are not reading the Bible regularly," "you have not confessed your sins," "you have not given enough money to God," etc. The last -- perhaps the most insidious -- is now the most common, particularly in Third World countries where the SHAM Health-and-Wealth Religion is dominant. God damn America for televangelism. (And for a whole lot of other things as well.)

Conclusion: In light of this article, Eberhard Jüngel's treatment of sin in Justification is apropos: sin is "entanglement in a sham existence": "If sin in its most primitive form is the untruth which corrupts the truth of divine love and does not even allow itself this love, then the deeds we do in life can be called nothing else than a sham existence" (128). Salvation, or justification, is thus a rescuing from this sham existence. When God rescues us, God sets us free from a sham existence:

The justification of the ungodly, which is the truth that sets us free, speaks negatively about those fatal lies that may perfectly well appear as offers of meaning. [Read: SHAM, a movement of self-help and self-actualization.] A life lived from God's righteousness will thus be lived in freedom from that sham existence in which sinners are entangled and in which they threaten to be destroyed. This sham existence takes various forms: individual and collective, profane and religious, political and economic. It exists in the intimate depths of human life, but also on a global scale. It can spread both locally and in the wider community. Among these [lies] ... is the lie which implies that the old Adam can renew himself, if only he believes in himself, whether generically, or as a member of a class or a race. ... For since no earthly power can truly make a new person from the old Adam, this totalitarian claim can only be maintained with the aid of a lie, and the lie can only be maintained with the aid of terror. ...

Faith is the most complete exclusion of all human self-actualization. For believers trust in God at work. And this trust in God, as far as we are concerned, consists quite simply in enjoying our new existence. (265-67)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Lessons from 'Christian' Music, Vol. 2: Derek Webb, Part 1: "My Enemies Are Men Like Me"

After posting a couple songs by the Gaither Vocal Band, I want to move to the opposite end of the spectrum, Derek Webb. Webb is a former member of Caedmon's Call, and his recent album, Mockingbird, is a stunning departure from the usual trash produced by CCM artists. Rather than a negative lesson, as was the case with the Gaither Vocal Band, Webb offers truly positive lessons for those who consider themselves both Christian and artists. I place scare-quotes around 'Christian' in order to emphasize that, in this case, Webb's music does not succumb to the temptation among CCM artists to produce pseudo-artistic, quasi-worship songs that simply talk about God over and over again -- though what kind of 'God' is often hard to tell. The phrase 'Christian music' is an abomination, and it simply does not do justice to Webb, though he is by no means a great musician on the level of truly incredible artists like Sufjan Stevens. But for those who refuse to listen to anything that does not come from the 'Christian' sector of music, Derek Webb is a bridge musician who speaks to those trapped in their own self-congratulating musical bubble while pushing them, rather harshly, toward a better and more broad view of the world. I will post a few of his songs in this next segment of "Lessons from 'Christian' Music."

"My Enemies Are Men Like Me"

Verse 1:
I have come to give you life
And to show you how to live it
I have come to make things right
To heal their ears and show you how to forgive them

Pre-Chorus:
Because I would rather die
I would rather die
I would rather die
Than to take your life

Chorus:
How can I kill the ones I’m supposed to love
My enemies are men like me
I will protest the sword if it’s not wielded well
My enemies are men like me

Verse 2:
Peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication
It’s like telling someone murder is wrong
And then showing them by way of execution

Bridge:
When justice is bought and sold just like weapons of war
The ones who always pay are the poorest of the poor

Monday, May 29, 2006

Why I Love John Webster

[This short essay was composed for a series entitled, "For the Love of God: Why I Love ...," conducted by Ben Myers on his always fascinating blog, Faith and Theology. This is the full-length version of the essay.]

Why I Love John Webster

“Christian theology is properly evangelical, because it is generated by the gospel” (Word and Church, 110).

This line near the end of John Bainbridge Webster’s treatment of Barth and Bonhoeffer on Scripture stands like a banner over his own dogmatic work. Webster represents the future for English systematic theology simply because of his unwavering attention to the gospel—to the gracious Word of God incarnate, written, and spoken (to use Barth’s threefold distinction). To use another concept in Barth, developed by Eberhard Jüngel—both Barth and Jüngel are mentors as well as scholarly interests—Webster is committed to “thinking after” and “speaking after” God’s own speech in the Word of the gospel.

I was in my third year at Wheaton College when John Webster came as the keynote speaker for the annual theology conference. The topic for the conference was evangelical ecclesiology, and Webster gave two lectures now collected as one in his second book of dogmatic essays, Confessing God. As usual, he demonstrated his characteristic concern for dogmatic precision. Webster refuses to compromise when the gospel is at stake. He insists on theological clarity in order to preserve what must be preserved: the distinction between Creator and creatures, the perfection of God, God’s being-in-act as a being pro nobis.

John Webster has a particular and valuable role to play in contemporary theology. Some have called Pope Benedict XVI, while still Cardinal Ratzinger, the “watchdog of the Vatican.” While the comparison is misleading, Webster is the “watchdog” for a Reformed Protestantism schooled by Barth. I say “misleading,” because in reality Webster is seeking to be what all theologians should and must be: not watchdogs (and not for any particular tradition), but rather always and only witnesses to the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Webster is a brilliant expositor of Barth and Jüngel. He is responsible both for the current renaissance in Barth studies and for whatever interest exists in Jüngel in English-speaking countries. His own dogmatic work continues to grow and take shape in response to these two figures. In speaking with him this week at a Barth Conference, he told me about his current work on a commentary on Ephesians, and that in perhaps five years his own systematic theology will be well underway. Whether his focus is on Christology, the canon, hope, holiness, Holy Scripture, or the attributes of God, Webster pursues what he calls a more “theological theology,” whose distinctiveness lies “in its invocation of God as agent in the intellectual practice of theology” (Confessing God, 25). The triune God of grace is not only at the center of his work, but actually shapes it as the God who acts. Webster knows that he only receives what he is given.

In an introduction to Jüngel’s recently published work in English, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith, Webster writes the following about Jüngel’s polemicizing: “This feature of Jüngel’s work . . . is generated by an understanding of theology as . . . a call to intellectual self-examination and repentance. Jüngel’s book . . . does not think that building consensus means suspension of strong conviction. . . . In short, for Jüngel, contending about the truth is itself a contribution to ecumenism, since it is the truth of the gospel which is the only ground of the church’s peace” (xiii-xiv).

The same can truly be said of John Webster himself.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Karl Barth and Apologetics

Since posting that quote by Barth from the Römerbrief about apologetics, I have been asked to further comment on Barth's position by e-mail. Since the topic of apologetics is still a relevant one--maybe even more relevant in our pluralistic society--I will post the quotes from Barth that I sent out to those interested in the topic. I have also included the entry on Karl Barth and apologetics that John McDowell wrote for the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics just published last month.

Church Dogmatics 1.2, pp. 332-333:
By trying to resist and conquer other religions, we put ourselves on the same level. They, too, appeal to this or that immanent truth in them. They, too, can triumph in the power of the religious self-consciousness, and sometimes they have been astonishingly successful over wide areas. Christianity can take part in this fight. There is no doubt that it does not lack the necessary equipment, and can give a good account of itself alongside the other religions. But do not forget that if it does this it has renounced its birthright. It has renounced the unique power which it has as the religion of revelation. This power dwells only in weakness. ... [Regarding the apologists of the early church] It was a real temptation, not merely to validate Jesus Christ against or for the sinful men of heathen religion, as the sacred books of the Church, the Old Testament and New Testament, demanded, but at the same time (and very quickly on a fairly broad front) to play off the Christian religion as better than the heathen, to contrast Christian possession ... with heathen poverty. When we read the apologetics of the second and third centuries, can we altogether avoid the painful impression that what we have here ... is, on the whole, a not very happy, a rather self-righteous, and at any rate a not very perspicacious boasting about all those advantages of Christianity over heathen religion which were in themselves incontestable but not ultimately decisive? In these early self-commendations of Christianity a remarkably small part is played by the fact that grace is the truth of Christianity, that the Christian is justified when he is without God, like Abraham, that he is like the publican in the temple, the prodigal son, wretched Lazarus, the guilty thief crucified with Jesus Christ. Instead, we have the -- admittedly successful -- rivalry of one way of salvation, one wisdom and morality with others.
CD 2.1, pp. 8, 93-95: in these passages, Barth defines apologetics
as the false task of describing and defending the faith without the
presupposition of faith in the Word of God -- thus it is a "natural
theology" which has no place in Christian discourse.

CD 2.1, p. 94:
This dilemma betrays the inner contradiction in every form of a 'Christian' natural theology. As a 'Christian' natural theology, it must really represent and affirm the standpoint of faith. Its true objective to which it really wants to lead unbelief is the knowability of the real God through Himself in His revelation. But as a 'natural' theology, its initial aim is to disguise this and therefore to pretend to share in the life-endeavour of natural man. ... Therefore, as a natural theology it speaks and acts improperly. And at this point -- this betrays the contradiction -- it is guilty of definite error, not only in regard to the subject, but now also in regard to man, in regard to the world, in regard to unbelief. And it is an error which not only injures truth but also and directly love. It is a theological error which reveals itself to be such by the fact that it is obviously a pedagogic error as well. The unbelieving man who is the partner in this conversation is not a child playing games, to whom we are in the habit of speaking down in order the more surely to raise him up. If we think we can play with him, we will get our fingers bitten.
Cf. CD 2.2, p.520:
Apologetics in this case would be the attempt to establish and justify the theologico-ethical inquiry within the framework and on the foundation of the presuppositions and methods of non-theological, of wholly human thinking and language.
The God of grace is "lost when the apology succeeds" (2.2, 521).


Karl Barth on Apologetics, by John McDowell:

According to the will of their benefactor, the Gifford lectures were to promote the study of natural theology in Scottish universities. In Aberdeen in 1937-8, however, Barth criticised this theme, and commented instead on the Scots Confession of 1560. Natural theology, the attempt to know God apart from revelation, and that which underpinned many 'apologetic strategies', is a theologically mistaken enterprise. In Jesus Christ we know the trinitarian God as the 'Subject' of our knowing (i.e., it is through God's initiating agency that we know). Since God is not an 'object' in the way other things are, God cannot be known in the same way as other objects. Therefore theological rationality remains relatively (not absolutely) independent of other forms of rationality.

That does not mean that Barth drew a contrast between God and world, faith and reason, in a manner simply describable as 'irrationalist'. His theological account of rationality called into question the legitimacy of any (1) general view of rationality that does not take seriously the sinful perspectives of our knowing, (2) account of knowing that imagines God as an 'object' perceivable through human striving.

Instead of natural theology Barth proposed that "the best apologetics is a good dogmatics", and maintained that revelation defends itself [Table Talk, ed. J. D. Godsey (Edinburgh and London, 1963), 62]. Through the agency of the trinitarian God we have come to know God, in a life-involving faith; explaining this faith to others involves describing who Christians believe in, and presumably providing testimony to the possibility of this knowing; so that others may be encouraged to 'see things the way I [or better, 'we', since knowing is social] do'.

The manner of Barth's 'faith seeking understanding' (learned largely from Anselm) suggests further that this involves ways of detailed and thoughtful critiquing others, while humbly acknowledging one's own fragility, and constantly testing one's own beliefs. But that Barth is not promoting any simple 'internal coherence' perspective on the truth of Christian belief, is most readily detectable in his theological love of Mozart; his eclectic practice of learning and appreciating insights gained from the likes of Heidegger and Sartre, among others; his later reflections on creation's "little lights" [Church Dogmatics, IV.3.1, §69.2]; and his earlier claim that

"God may speak to us through Russian communism, through a flute concerto, through a blossoming shrub or through a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to him if he really does so" [Church Dogmatics, I.1, 60].

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Study Catechism: Will all human beings be saved?

The Study Catechism (authored primarily by George Hunsinger) is a profound document that deals in question-answer format with the major areas of the Christian faith. In preparation for my future series on universalism, I wish to present two of the questions for public consideration.

Question 49. Will all human beings be saved?
No one will be lost who can be saved. The limits to salvation, whatever they may be, are known only to God. Three truths above all are certain. God is a holy God who is not to be trifled with. No one will be saved except by grace alone. And no judge could possibly be more gracious than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. (Heb. 10:31, Rom. 11:32, Luke 15:4-7, Eph. 2:8, 1 Tim. 2:3-4, John 3:17-18, Ezek. 18:32, 2 Cor. 5:14-15)

Question 51. How will God deal with the followers of other religions?
God has made salvation available to all human beings through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. How God will deal with those who do not know or follow Christ, but who follow another tradition, we cannot finally say. We can say, however, that God is gracious and merciful, and that God will not deal with people in any other way than we see in Jesus Christ, who came as the Savior of the world. (Rev. 7:9, Ps. 103:8, John 3:19, Titus 2:11)

Friday, May 26, 2006

"The Simpsons" as Philosophy

Check out the recent BBC article on "The Simpsons," which presents the thoughts of Julian Baggini on the philosophy of Homer & family. I agree with him for the most part; the show is definitely in contention for the greatest television show of all time. But many shows "do" philosophy, broadly defined. My current favorite TV show, "Desperate Housewives," does not ask the same kind of existential-religious questions, but it does have the best social criticism of any show today. "The Simpsons" reigns, however, as a monument to American culture and the questions posed by modernity. There's nothing like it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

N. T. Wright, New Gnosticism, and Apologetics

On Tuesday, May 16, five of us from The Well drove down to Washington D.C. to hear Bishop Wright speak at the National Cathedral as part of a book tour for his recently published work of apologetics, Simply Christian. His talk was interesting, but not much more than an overview of his book. As usual, he emphasizes the this-worldliness of Christianity, the physical nature of the faith as rooted in creation, resurrection, and new creation. He focuses on the kingdom of God on earth as the work of the church. New creation is his overall theme and his summary of the Christian message: the new creation made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is individual, communal, and ultimately cosmic in nature--encompassing the reality of the world within the eschatological reality of God.

Wright's talk began with a very fascinating introduction about the rise of Gnosticism in the western world today. He strongly criticized both the left and the right, the former represented by Elaine Pagels, Dan Brown, and Bart Ehrman (all of which he mentioned by name) and the latter by Tim LaHaye and the Left Behind series (and other dispensational-rapture fundamentalists who believe in an other-worldly god who takes us away from the world). He said all of this in the first several minutes, and that was probably the best part of the entire lecture. I entirely agree with this cultural critique, and some of my past posts have made the very same observations. Gnosticism is the greatest threat Christianity faces today, although it is important to remember that "threat" is a wholly human concern and that from God's side such things are of no concern. Christians should not fret over these cultural realities but rather trust wholeheartedly in the sovereign grace of God who acts to create, preserve, and redeem what belongs to God and God alone: this cosmos, humanity, the church, and the future kingdom.

The rest of the talk was intriguing but not as incisive or fresh. I criticize Wright for engaging in apologetics at all, which I believe is deeply problematic. This is no where more evident than in the opening chapters of both his book and his model, Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. Both books begin by appealing to "universal" ideas and standards, things that are "common" to all people everywhere. Lewis fails on this point more than Wright, since he actually builds positively upon these universals--what he calls the Tao (taking a cue from Chinese philosophy) in The Abolition of Man. Wright is better in that he uses these universals to establish something negatively--what humanity lacks and is incapable of achieving, i.e., wholeness or the Good or shalom. Nevertheless, Wright still engages in this quasi-natural theology at the start of his book, and any engagement in apologetics requires some kind of rapprochement between Christianity and some extra-Christian idea or belief or philosophy. Christian theology needs to heed the following from Karl Barth:
The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel--that is, Christian Apologetics--is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. ... It [the Gospel] does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both. ... God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him. (The Epistle to the Romans, 35)
With that, I will close with a couple pictures. The first is our group standing with Bishop Wright. Todd is the pastor at the Well, while Kate, Jeff, and Gary are friends from the church. Gary will be a senior at PTS in the fall, and he is just now finishing up his pastoral internship with the strong likelihood of being hired down the road (perhaps a very short road). The last picture is the National Cathedral after Wright's talk as we headed back to the car.



Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Jüngel Blog!

Check out the link on the right for my new blog dedicated to Eberhard Jüngel's thought: "God as the Mystery of Theology."

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Jüngel Blog?

So after his lecture this morning on Barth's lectures on John's Gospel, John Webster spoke with me and seemed interested in a blog that focused on Eberhard Jüngel's theology. I have done that sporadically on this blog, but I am considering the prospect of starting a second blog which would focus on Jüngel's theology (and those connected to Jüngel, such as Barth, Heidegger, Hegel, Ebeling, even Thomas Aquinas, etc.). I don't know how many would be interested in reading such a blog, but if there is at least one other person out there who thinks it might be worthwhile to dedicate a blog to such specific theological concerns, I will start it right away.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Eberhard Jüngel: Bibliography of Works in English

Bibliography of Eberhard Jüngel's works in English arranged chronologically:

Jüngel, Eberhard. "God - as a Word of Our Language" in F. Herzog, ed., Theology of the Liberating Word (Nashville: Abingdon, English Translation 1971), pp. 24-45.

—. Death: The Riddle and the Mystery
, trans. Iain and Ute Nicol (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, ET 1974).

—. "The Relationship between 'Economic' and 'Immanent' Trinity" in Theology Digest 24 (1976), pp. 179-184.

—. "The Truth of Life: Observations on Truth as the Interruption of the Continuity of Life" in R.W.A. Mackinney, ed., Creation, Christ, and Culture: Studies in Honour of T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1976), pp. 231-236.

—. God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 1983).

—. Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy, trans. Garrett E. Paul (Philadelphia: Westminster, ET 1986).

—. "The Christian Understanding of Suffering" in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 65 (1988), pp. 3-13.

—. The Freedom of a Christian: Luther's Significance for Contemporary Theology, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Augsburg, ET 1988).

—. Theological Essays I, trans. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 1989).

—. "Response to Josef Blank" in H. Kung and D. Tracy, eds., Paradigm Change in Theology: A Symposium for the Future (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 1989), pp. 297-304.

—. "What does it mean to say, 'God is love'?" in T. Hart and D. Thimell, eds., Christ in our Place: The Humanity of God in Christ for the Reconciliation of the World. Essays Presented to Prof. James Torrance (Exeter: Paternoster, ET 1989), pp. 294-312.

—. "The Last Judgment as an Act of Grace" in Louvain Studies 14 (1990), pp. 389-405.

—. "Life after Death? A Response to Theology's Silence about Eternal Life" in Word and World 11 (1991), pp. 5-8.

—. "Toward the Heart of the Matter" in Christian Century 108:7 (1991), pp. 228-233.

—. Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration, trans. D. B. Hamill and Alan J. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 1992).

—. "The Gospel and the Protestant Churches of Europe: Christian Responsibility for Europe from a Protestant Perspective," in Religion, State and Society 21:2 (1993), pp. 137-149.

—. Theological Essays II, trans. J. B. Webster and A. Neufeldt-Fast (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 1994).

—. "Trinitarian Prayers for Christian Worship," in Word and World 18 (Summer 1998), pp. 244-253.

—. "On the Doctrine of Justification" in the International Journal of Systematic Theology 1:1 (1999), pp. 24-52.

—. "To tell the world about God: The task for the mission of the church on the threshold of the third millennium" in International Review of Mission (April 30, 2000).

—. "Theses on the Relation of the Existence, Essence and Attributes of God" in Toronto Journal of Theology 17 (2001), pp. 55-74.

—. God's Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth - A Paraphrase, trans. J. B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 2001); previously translated as The Doctrine of the Trinity, trans. H. Harris (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, ET 1976).

—. Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith, trans. Jeffrey F. Cayzer (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 2001).

—. "The Cross After Postmodernity" in One Incarnate Truth: Christianity's Answer to Spiritual Chaos, ed. by Uwe Siemon-Netto (Concordia Publishing, 2002).

—. "Sermon on Matthew 25:1-12" in Toronto Journal of Theology 18:1 (Spring 2002), pp. 13-19.

Further Reflections on Contraceptives and God's Graciousness

After thinking more on the issue of contraceptives, I finally came across this quote by Karl Barth on a blog by Scott Collins-Jones (a Ph.D student at PTS). Barth writes about the authorization that humans have (or do not have) to kill and eat animals, and I think what he says speaks in a profound way to the situation of birth control.
The slaying of animals is really possible only as an appeal to God's reconciling grace, as its representation and proclamation. It undoubtedly means making use of the offering of an alien and innocent victim and claiming its life for ours. Man must have good reasons for seriously making such a claim. His real and supposed needs certainly do not justify it. He must be authorised to do so by his acknowledgement of the faithfulness and goodness of God, who in spite of and in his guilt keeps him from falling as He saved Noah's generation from the flood and kept it even though it was no better as a result. Man sins if he does it without this authorisation. He sins if he presumes to do it on his own authority. He is already on his way to homocide if he sins in the killing of animals, if he murders an animal. He must not murder an animal. He can only kill it, knowing that it does not belong to him but to God, and that in killing it he surrenders it to God in order to receive it back from Him as something he needs and desires. The killing of animals in obedience is possible only as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner in face of the One who is the Creator and Lord of man and beast. (CD III.4, 354-55)
The point I was trying to make before is that we sin when we think that we have a natural right or authorization to use birth control simply because it is convenient for us to have this modern technology. What we fail to realize is that we can use this only because we acknowledge "the faithfulness and goodness of God." We sin if we presume to take these drugs on our own authority, without surrendering it God "in order to receive it back from [God] as something [we] need and desire."

I partially agree with Catholic moral theory that taking birth control is something that can be dehumanizing, though I do not think it is de facto dehumanizing. Many things in life can be dehumanizing, more things now than ever before. Capitalism, consumerism, militarism, patriotism, materialism, nationalism, etc. Life is dehumanzing when detached from God. Our life in this world "is possible only as a deeply reverential act of repentance, gratitude and praise on the part of the forgiven sinner." The moment we lose touch with the prayerful foundation for our very existence, we fall into the abyss. We are surrounded in the western world with conveniences that end up making life more inconvenient, with time-saving devices that only make our day more stressful. We live in an environment that expects these technologies as our human rights. Insofar as we succumb to this pressure -- of elevating ourselves, degrading others, and ignoring God -- we are in sin.

Taking birth control and killing animals are two very different acts, but the same principle undergirds them both: the faithfulness and graciousness of a God who loves us and gives us every good gift. Apart from our act of human surrender and God's act of gracious giving, our lives are empty and worthless. In these everyday acts of taking drugs and eating meat, we are given an opportunity to remind ourselves of the ultimate surrender and the ultimate giving: the surrender of our lives in the surrender of Jesus' life on the cross, and the giving of new life to each person in the raising of Jesus from the dead.

"For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (Mark 8:35).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hunsinger on Bonhoeffer: Who Is Jesus Christ For Us Today?

Kevin Hector, a Ph.D student here at Princeton Seminary and a Wheaton College graduate, posted a recent sermon by George Hunsinger at the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank, where a number of very intelligent scholars post on theological topics relevant to our present-day situation. Some of you may remember my own post on Bill Cavanaugh's lecture on torture that was given in January at Princeton Seminary. That conference was organized by Hunsinger, and the issues raised by Cavanaugh in his books are dear to Hunsinger's heart. This sermon is beautiful and disturbing. I hope people take the time to read it.

Hunsinger's Sermon

Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

The question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked himself, his students, and his readers remains as urgent now as when he first raised it: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Bonhoeffer by no means intended to challenge the authoritative biblical answer. What he confessed with the prophets and the apostles, he attested at the cost of his life. He affirmed that Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord who had become incarnate for our sakes in order to die for our sins and liberate us from the power of death. That was the answer presupposed in every other possible answer to his question. It was the one answer that contained all others within itself.

But Bonhoeffer knew that other answers were indeed included within that one answer. He knew that in dying for our sins, Jesus Christ had made the sufferings of the world his own. He knew that discipleship to Christ meant participating in Christ's sufferings in the present time. "The hungry need bread," he once wrote, "and the homeless need a roof; the oppressed need justice and the lonely need fellowship; the undisciplined need order and the slave needs freedom." Because Jesus had entered into our world of sorrows, and because he had taken up the cause of those in need, making their cause to be his own, Bonhoeffer could continue: "To allow the hungry to remain hungry would be blasphemy against God and one's neighbor, for what is nearest to God is precisely the need of one's neighbor" (Ethics, p. 137).

That was Bonhoeffer's great insight. "What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one's neighbor." On this profound basis he saw that it made no sense to choose between evangelism and social action. He saw that evangelism without social action was empty, and that social action without evangelism was blind. Both were key to the church's mission, since both were ways of bearing witness in the world to God's love for the world in Jesus Christ. Social action against crying injustice was an indirect form of evangelism, while evangelism that led unbelievers to know and love Jesus remained an indirect goal of social action. In different ways they both proclaimed that God's love extends to the whole person at every level of human need. Feeding the hungry, as Bonhoeffer once said, prepared the way for the coming of grace.

"What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one's neighbor." This statement provides a real clue to how Bonhoeffer answered his own question. The Risen Lord, he believed, confronts us here and now precisely as the neighbor in need. That is who Jesus Christ is for us today: he comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the prisoner locked away. The neighbor in need is revealed as an incognito form of Christ's presence. This epiphany does not mean that Christ and the needy are simply identical, but it does mean that by divine grace they are inseparably one. It is impossible to serve Christ here and now without serving one's neighbor in need. As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

Since what is nearest to God is the need of one's neighbor, and since Christ has made himself to be one with those in dire need, Bonhoeffer drew the right conclusion. He recognized that Christians have a special obligation to those in any society who are being persecuted, humiliated and abused. "Only those who cry out for the Jews," he wrote, "have the right to sing Gregorian chants." For the church in the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer perceived, the presence of Jesus Christ could not be separated from the plight of persecuted Jews. Whoever would serve Christ had to enter into solidarity with that despised and mistreated group, crying out by word and deed.

But that was then, and this is now. Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Who are those who are being persecuted, humiliated and abused in our particular society? Sadly there are many contenders, and too many to be mentioned here, yet chief among them, I would suggest, are the victims around the world today of U.S. sponsored torture.

April 2006 marks the second anniversary since shocking photos were released from Abu Ghraib. These photos are difficult to look at yet impossible to forget. How can we view them without thinking of Christ? How can we view the wrenching scenes of nude male bodies stacked in postures of sexual humiliation without remembering the saying: I was naked and you clothed me? How can we gaze on the shackled man kneeling in an orange jumpsuit with terror in his eyes as a ferocious German shepherd strains at the leash only inches from his face without recalling: I was in prison and you visited me. Where is the outcry? Why the silence of the churches? Can we learn what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to teach us? Or will we be "good Germans" all over again? Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

"The thought of Jesus being stripped, beaten and derided until his final agony on the cross," wrote Pope John Paul II, "should always prompt a Christian to protest against similar treatment of their fellow beings. Of their own accord, disciples of Christ will reject torture, which nothing can justify, which causes humiliation and suffering to the victim and degrades the tormentor."

The torture-abuse scandal, as first revealed by the photos from Abu Ghraib, has by no means gone away. According to recent human rights reports:

· Detainee deaths at the hands of U.S. soldiers continue around the world.

· Aggressive, painful force-feeding has been instituted at Guantanamo where prisoners are so desperate that many would prefer to commit suicide.

· Secret CIA prisons, rife with torture situations, remain scattered across the globe.

· Thousands of persons have been subjected to what is called "extraordinary rendition," whereby suspects are essentially kidnapped and sent to countries that use torture as a means of interrogation. Yet who can deny that outsourcing torture to other regimes is the moral equivalent of practicing it ourselves?

· Finally, the department of defense has admitted to the Red Cross that "70-90 percent" of the Abu Ghraib prisoners were entirely innocent. Similar if somewhat lower figures have been estimated for other U.S. detention centers, including Guantanamo.

Not a single major human rights organization in the world believes that these abuses can be explained merely as the actions of a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell, has stated that top officials -- up to and including the president -- have given a green light to soldiers to abuse detainees. "You don't have this kind of pervasive attitude out there," he observed, "unless you've condoned it." Yet no officials at the higher levels have seriously been been brought to account.

The photos from Abu Ghraib make one thing clear. Working against torture as sponsored by our government must begin at the local and congregational level. As dismaying as it may seem, polls show that at least 73 percent of the American people believe that torture may be used at least rarely, and 15 percent say it is "often" permissible. The figures for Christians in particular are, sadly, no exception.

The terrible stain of torture -- which is not only morally wrong but has many harmful consequences even from the standpoint of self-interest -- will not be removed from our nation until we learn to act from higher motivations than blinding fear, narrow self-regard, and ugly resentment -- to say nothing of cultural racism. If torture is not evil, then nothing is evil, for torture is the very essence of evil. Only those who cry out today for the detained Muslims and Arabs have a right to sing Gregorian chants.

Let me close with these words from Holy Scripture.

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured (Heb. 13:3).

Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (I John 4:20).

This verse might be glossed to read: Those who say, "I love God," and torture their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who torture a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen -- and the same holds true for those who turn a blind eye to torture or otherwise condone it.

Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).

Bonhoeffer's searching question thereby remains: Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

Eberhard Jüngel: Faith as Life Lived Extra Se

Faith, the heartfelt Yes to God's judgement, is the foundational act of a life lived definitively outside itself. Faith thus follows the movement of the Word that justifies sinners. In faith we agree that God's justifying Word is calling, taking and placing us outside ourselves. In faith we go outside ourselves, that is, in conformity with the divine decision that affects us. In faith we comprehend the movement of our own justification which has already taken place in Jesus Christ, and it is in that comprehension - and not in some other way! - that we also complement that comprehension. As those who have been moved, we move; as those who have been moved by the grace and the Word of God, we move in accordance with this movement of divine grace and the divine Word. Believing, we trust God and thus entrust ourselves to the movement of grace and God's Word. That is why the external righteousness of God becomes in faith our own righteousness. For, as we believe, we allow ourselves to be transposed to the place which is our rightful place, that is where we, as human beings, are in our rightful human place: with God and his righteousness - with the God who is gracious to us and who, out of his grace, has suffered the judgement of a sinner condemned to death in order to bring new, justified life to light out of the darkness of such a death.

That is where I come to myself. That is where I am righteous. Outside myself I am in full possession of myself. If such a thing as Christian mysticism existed, it would consist of some such crossover of the inward and the outward, whereby the God who speaks to me in the act of justification calls me out to him in a fellowship of life. Of course, such fellowship can only be a fellowship along the way. The mystical union would not be the goal, but the way. Furthermore, it would be a way where the world was not shut out, but viewed from a new perspective. It follows that this would be a way where our senses might not - as is otherwise the case in mystical exercises - be excluded, but rather would be heightened, so that we would have eyes to see, ears to hear - to hear and be amazed. It would be a mysticism of opened eyes and opened ears.

[E. Jüngel, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith, 242-43.]

Monday, May 15, 2006

Eberhard Jüngel: God is Love

If God comes closer to humanity and in it to me than the human ego, individually and generically, is able to come close to itself, if God in this sense is "more inward to me than my most inward part," then he is not "higher than my highest" in such a way that my perishability would not touch him and his highness would not touch me. What is evidenced hermeneutically with regard to talk about God as the still greater similarity in such a great dissimilarity must also be expressible and be formulated ontologically with regard to the being of God. What should one call that being which in such great dissimilarity is concerned for the greater similarity, in such great distance is concerned for the still greater nearness, in such great majesty is concerned for the greater condescension, in such great differentness is concerned for the still more intensive relationship? To ask it in a Pauline way (in all of this we are dealing with God's relationship to 'sinful man'): How is that being to be named who counters growing sin with still greater grace (Rom 5:20)?

The answer does not have to be sought. It is both anthropologically and theologically evident and is called Love.

[Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World, 298.]

Jaroslav Pelikan: 1923-2006

The great church historian and translator, Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, died on Saturday, May 13. You can read more here and here.

Alvin Plantinga on the meaning of "fundamentalist"

Cynthia Nielson of Per Caritatem posted a quote from Alvin Plantinga on the meaning of the word "fundamentalist." I would just provide a link to her post, but this is too hilarious not to post here. Also, I need to credit Ben Myers for pointing out this post on his blog.

"But isn't this just endorsing a wholly outmoded and discredited fundamentalism, that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived? I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term 'fundamentalist'. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like 'son of a bitch', more exactly 'sonovabitch', or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) 'sumbitch.' When the term is used in this way, no definition, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you fell obligated first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of 'fundamentalist' (in this widely current use); it isn't simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch' (or maybe 'fascist sumbitch'?) than 'sumbitch' simpliciter. It isn't exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like 'stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine'" (Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 244-245).

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Eberhard Jüngel: we are righteous extra nos

Before I quote Jüngel, a few preliminary points. First, the extra nos character of Jüngel's theology is closely connected to, even dependent upon, his anthropology of the human person as a unity of the inner and outer person. Jüngel appropriates Luther's inner-outer distinction and makes it the center of his soteriology-anthropology. This is something Lutherans like Oswald Bayer and Tuomo Mannermaa wish to discard entirely. Jüngel, on the other hand, allows this to condition how he understands the "extra nos": the inner person is taken extra se, while the outer person remains active in the world. By making this distinction he is able to advocate what would otherwise be an absurdity: that our whole bodies are somehow taken away like some alien abduction. No, he rather makes this distinction so that our inner person (spirit) is re-created ex nihilo by God—brought into correspondence with God—after which act the outer person (flesh) is brought into active or moral correspondence with the inner person, and thus with God. So there are three levels of activity and a clear direction: God acts creatively on the passive inner person (taking it outside itself) by bestowing personhood, then the inner person (through the power of the Spirit) brings the outer person into moral correspondence with this interior personhood granted by God. To summarize the concept: our identity is not in ourselves but in God; we do not possess God but rather God possesses us; modern persons want to realize themselves through works and thus come to themselves, but the gospel tells us that we can only come to ourselves by forsaking ourselves and cleaving only to God. Here is Jüngel:
The intention of the forensic view of justification is to highlight the justification of sinners as an event by which they are accepted by God as righteous purely on the basis of God's righteousness - a righteousness completely extraneous to them - as it has been shown in the person of Jesus Christ Thus believers are described as those who 'are made acceptable to God because of [the] imputation [of God's righteousness].' This ensures that sinners can do nothing towards their own justification and, what is no less important, that they can never internalize the righteousness that is foreign to them or make it their own so that it passes into their possession. I am always accepted by someone else. I always have to gain my acceptance before a group. So recognition can never be 'had' as a possession by the one who is accepted or recognized. Those who are justified must resort to a tribunal outside themselves (extra se). There is nothing about them or in them - not even justifying grace poured into them - which can make sinners righteous. In the reality of the state of the justified there are no concessions to be made. They are righteous purely and simply because they are pronounced righteous. And they are only pronounced righteous because God's righteousness, which is extraneous to them, is attributed, imputed to them. So in the strictest sense, God's righteousness comes to them from outside, it is outward. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves: extrinsece Iustificantur semper. Sinners are righteous externally to themselves in the same sense that the Word is an external One, coming from the outside into our innermost being and responding and relating to what has happened outside us (extra nos) in Christ. So it is the Word alone that can come from outside into our innermost being in such a way as to move us to the place where we should be, where we have the right to be together with God. The doctrine of justification by the Word alone (solo verbo) is aimed at emphasizing this external relationship of justified sinners. ...

... If any discussion of the gracious renewal of the inner person (renovatio interioris hominis) is to be acceptable to Protestant theology, it must never be seen as complementary, as an alternative or as completing the extrinsetist view of justification. It can only be seen as a refinement of the definition of the external reference of justified sinners.

This occurs when we take the justifying Word of God seriously as one that speaks to us creatively. Such a Word can never remain 'external' to those addressed. Together with the righteousness of God that brings it to us, it touches us so greatly that it touches us more closely than we can touch ourselves. It becomes to us something more inward than our inmost being: interior intimo meo. [In a footnote here, Jüngel writes, "This is the element of truth in T. Mannermaa's interpretation of Luther."]

However, now we need to emphasize again that the justifying Word that so addresses and touches sinners does not let us remain in ourselves; it calls and places our inner being outside ourselves. If our inner being were to stay put, it would not be justified. This is what creatively defines those who are in concord with God: they come out of themselves in order to come to themselves - outside themselves, among other persons, and above all with the person of the wholly other God. And this is our human sin: that we want to come to ourselves by ourselves - instead of outside ourselves. So, leaving the relational riches of our being, we press forward into relationlessness. The Word of justifying grace essentially interrupts sinners in this urge towards relationlessness as it speaks creatively to us. It calls us out of ourselves as it comes so close to us, as it speaks and relates to what is outside ourselves, to what has been definitively moved by God's righteousness. It speaks and relates to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as they are outside us. The justifying Word from the cross addresses our inner being in this exterior aspect of our existence so that there we may come to ourselves and thus really, effectively be renewed. 'Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation' (2 Cor 5:17). In the next section we shall see how this comes about through faith. [These passages come from the section on solo verbo, "by the word alone."] For the moment we need to highlight the creative, renewing strength of the justifying Word by which alone God in his grace reaches our inner being and effectively makes us righteous.

So the justifying Word remakes our human existence anew, by relating us to Jesus Christ and there bringing us to ourselves, outside ourselves (extra se/extra nos). Thus this external reference is not something inferior and superficial, but a relationship which defines us in our inmost being. We are simply not ourselves when we are only by ourselves. We cannot find ourselves by 'going into ourselves'. We must come out of ourselves in order to come to ourselves. In a very clear sense we are called out of ourselves by the Word of justification: 'By faith he rises above himself unto God'. By faith we are able to 'rise above ourselves' because the Word of justification addresses us in such a way that we know we are related to the person of Jesus Christ and of God who acts in him. This is why we can speak of justification as a renewal of our inner persons who are also placed outside ourselves. It is impossible to imagine a more thorough-going renewal. So righteousness imputed to sinners is also righteousness which is imparted to them and renews them - by the Word alone.

[E. Jüngel, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith, 205-206, 212-214.]

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Some interesting debates over ecumenism and Lutheran-Catholic dialogue

I am currently engaged in some intersting conversations with some online Lutheran theologians concerning Eberhard Jüngel's theology, ecumenism, Finnish Luthernism, and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Head over to Without Authority, where there are three fascinating recent posts. Then check out Sinning Boldly, where the conversation from Without Authority has been continued.

Perhaps in the near future I will post some official thoughts of my own. In the meantime, I welcome others interested in theology to join the discussion.

Contraceptives, Abortion, and Western Liberalism

Last Sundary afternoon, Amy and I relaxed with a few other couples from our church by grilling wings, frying our own Red Robin-style steak fries, drinking beer, and mixing Rita's water ice with liquor (my personal favorite was chocolate water ice with Kahlua). In the midst of the fun, us men had a conversation about the politics and philosophy behind the death penalty, contraceptives, and abortion. The last two, in particular, were close to home, since birth control is used by all the couples we know, at the church and elsewhere. As I told them, philosophically, I am against birth control for the same reason I am against abortion: it places the individual human person in a position of control as the arbiter over life and death, over our own bodies, as a kind of god within our sphere of activity. The consequence of Enlightenment individuality is that people in the industrial West now view this as a natural right given by their Maker (whoever that is).

All of this was beautifully and sadly reinforced with the publication of the NY Times Magazine article on "Contra-Contraception" concerning the new wave of social conservatives who are out to take on contraceptives as much as abortion. The article clearly connects the two issues (as the author should), but also clearly portrays these people as nut-jobs who are out to destroy the basic fabric of life. As Russell Shorto puts it, "they want to change the way Americans have sex." God forbid! Now, to be sure, most of the people talked about in the article are people I wish to have no association with, politically or religiously. Focus on the Family simply elicits from me the statement on a great bumper-sticker: Focus on your own damn family. And my reasons for being against contraceptives (in principle, at least) are far different from theirs: "Contraception, by [their] logic, encourages sexual promiscuity, sexual deviance (like homosexuality) and a preoccupation with sex that is unhealthful even within marriage." I simply do not care about those concerns, and quite frankly, they are not concerns for me. What is a concern is what the following quote brings out nicely:
It may be news to many people that contraception as a matter of right and public health is no longer a given, but politicians and those in the public health profession know it well. "The linking of abortion and contraception is indicative of a larger agenda, which is putting sex back into the box, as something that happens only within marriage," says William Smith, vice president for public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
"As a matter of right." I cannot help but read this and think, what an arrogant thing to say. The whole project of modern liberalism (used in the classical sense, not in the modern conservative-liberal framework) has taught us to expect rights for ourselves. As much as the values fought for in the French Revolution -- fraternity, equality, liberty -- are indeed quite Christian in nature and origin, the corresponding stress on individual rights is a modern invention that simply does not square with a gospel that tells us to die to ourselves and expect nothing but a cross. It's no wonder that the The Prayer of Jabez was so popular: it reinforced the western mindset that we each, as individuals, have a right to an expansion and increase of our wealth and property (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). Had you replaced Jabez's prayer with almost any from Jesus, I can guarantee Bruce Wilkinson's book would never have sold millions of copies.

All of this is to say, I do not view the use of contraceptives as a right, but at the very least as a gift from God -- even though I know that my very use of them requires that I ask forgiveness. And so I do. To act otherwise would be to assert myself over God, and that I will not do.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Eberhard Jüngel on the Mystery of God: Deus pro nobis

I believe, therefore I am astonished. And how! Believing, one experiences God as the inexhaustible mystery of oneself and of all things; as the one who is absolutely surprising, who nevertheless is or should be self-evident; as an absolutely singular event that nevertheless is of unsurpassable generality; as eternal being and yet full of becoming; as the most concrete, who as such is the most concrete universal; as the Father in heaven who reveals himself on earth in the brother of humanity. Believing, one experiences the God who came to the world as a human being, was crucified, and was raised from the dead as the being rich in relations, who differentiates himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and as the one who is inter-related as a community of reciprocal otherness. In believing, the human person experiences the mystery of the triune God who takes the relationlessness of death upon himself, in order to be the being rich in relations, the being of love in the unity of life and death to the benefit of life. It is the mystery of even greater selflessness in the midst of such great trinitarian self-relatedness. In faith in the triune God, the depths of the word of the cross are opened up. I believe, therefore I am astonished at the trinitarian mystery as the sum of the gospel: God from eternity and thus in and of himself is God for us. ("My Theology," Theological Essays II, 7-8)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Global Night Commute, Or, How It Felt To Sleep In Downtown Philadelphia

I am a little late in posting about the event of last weekend, but this is my finals weeks. I will try to keep this brief. Last Saturday, April 29, was the date set for the Global Night Commute for Invisible Children. The Invisible Children campaign concerns a long-running run in northern Uganda in which children are being abducted from their homes in the bush, brainwashed, and forced to fight in a civil war that has killed thousands and is going nowhere. In order to protect themselves, the children commute every night to the nearest city where they sleep in concentration camp-like shelters in order to find refuge for the night. In the morning, they all make the trek back to the homes on foot--for many miles. You can watch their promotional media here. The GNC took place all around the world, but primarily in major U.S. cities. Nearly 60,000 people, in solidarity with the children in Uganda, made the trek to their local cities to sleep overnight as a way of raising awareness about the tragedies occurring in Africa.

A large group from our church, The Well, joined over a 1000 people in downtown Philadelphia to write letters to government leaders and make a public stand in the center of the city, next to the Liberty Bell. Here are some pictures of the event.


That's the group from The Well waiting for a LONG time for the train to take us down to Philly.



We were technically not allowed to fall asleep because of an ordinance was passed to keep homeless people in shelters and off the streets. By 2 am, though, most people had openly ignored that rule and decided to sleep anyway. The Invisible Children people told us that we might be kicked out by the city if we slept, but of course that didn't happen.


After a very cold night on the hard ground, some without any sleeping bags, many were grumpy and ready to leave. It was a rather surreal experience to wake up on Sunday morning in the middle of the city with pain in your neck and back and hundreds of people all around you.



My strange, sleepy wife. I love her.


Yay for church friends!


Ah, how cute. We look a lot better than we felt.

(Parenthetically, CBS news in Philly covered the story: "Local Protestors Fight For Peace In Uganda." I've always wanted to be a protestor. Click on the video to the right of the story to see what they showed on TV. On a more disappointing note, the Portland GNC, which was larger than Philly's, resulted in no news coverage. It's a sad time for Portland's media when 1300 people sleeping in Pioneer Courthouse Square are completely ignored. And yet, perhaps that underscores the point. Even we are invisible. How sad but true. America is a nation that makes people invisible.)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Lessons from Christian Music, Vol. 1: Gaither Vocal Band, Part 2: "He's Watching Me"

(This is beautifully representative of the narcissistic, anthropocentric, individualistic tendencies that run all through "Christian" music. I laugh just reading these lyrics. Since when is God a cosmic babysitter??)

"He's Watching Me"

He has Jupiter for a pillow,
an angel choir for a lullaby,
clouds for a blanket,
and the moon is his night light.
But he don't ever sleep,
'cause he's busy watching over me.
He rules the universe, from his throne on high.
But when I need attention, he is by my side,
He's watching me. Yes, he's watching me.

He's a busy God but on his list of things to do,
his number one priority is watching me and you.
He's taking care of business, feeding birds and making rain.
But he'll stop what he's doing when I speak his name.
Cause he's watching, he's watching me.

He might be busy painting rainbows,
or making demons plead.
But he'll still find the time to make some time for you and me.
There's nothing, no no nothing, he would rather do.
Well he knows when I'm in trouble, he don't miss a beat.
One eye's on that sparrow and the other one's on me,
He's watching me. Yes, he's watching me.

He's a busy God but on his list of things to do,
his number one priority is watching me and you.
He's taking care of business, feeding birds and making rain.
But he'll stop what he's doing when I speak his name.
He's a busy God but on his list of things to do,
his number one priority is watching me and you.
He's taking care of business, feeding birds and making rain.
But he'll stop what he's doing when I speak his name.
Cause he's watching, he's watching me. Yes he's watching, he's watching me.
Well, he's watching, he's watching me.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Simply the Best Article on the Current American Political Situation

This article, published in the New York Times and written by an editor for The New Republic, is phenomenal. His diagnosis of the current conservative-liberal ideas, ideologies, and visions is the best I have yet seen. Read it.

Monday, May 01, 2006

For those who like to read the book before watching the film

Since "The Da Vinci Code" comes out in theaters in 18 days, there isn't much time to read the book beforehand. For those who would like to read what they can, I have an eBook version of the novel that I would be happen to send to those interested. Of course, I recommend (for the sake of your eyes) to pick up the $8 paperback version at the local bookstore. The book should only take a few days to read; it's easy and very fast-paced.

Also, click here for an interesting and well-written article on what the relationship between the book and the church has been and should be.